Editorial: Tobacco companies 'spooked'

22:13, Aug 23 2012

It is a measure of how spooked tobacco companies are by the Government's threat to force them to sell their products in plain packaging that they have mounted an expensive advertising campaign as part of their strategy to head it off.

As the tide turns against smoking, the flexing of financial muscle by Big Tobacco is unlikely to do them much good. Most New Zealanders will see through the tendentiousness of the advertising and even if their backup tactic of a multipronged legal assault against the Government's moves succeeds it will be seen as the last gasp of an industry to which the country will be happy to say good riddance.

The tobacco companies argue that to sell their products in plain packaging would deprive them of their intellectual property in their brands, something that is worth millions to them. That, they argue, is contrary to the principle that no-one should lose property to the Government without appropriate compensation. That may very well be true, but in this case public-health considerations clearly outweigh the tobacco companies' rights to their intellectual property.

Tobacco is an addictive, dangerous substance that causes untold harm to thousands each year. It has been argued, as the unrepentant recidivist smoker Hone Harawira has done, that that harm is self-inflicted and that the tax collected on the sale of tobacco more than compensates for the costs of healthcare necessitated by it. The harm to individuals cannot be ignored, however.

Tobacco is the only widely available substance proved to cause harm to the health when consumed in precisely the way it is intended to be. It is crucially different in this respect from alcohol, for instance, or fast food, which used in moderation cause no problems. It has also been argued that if tobacco is so harmful the Government should ban it, but as the experience of the United States with alcohol during the 1920s showed, bans on products that are still widely desired to some degree are hideously expensive and ultimately do not work.

The last Labour government moved vigorously against tobacco by forbidding its use in public indoor spaces, including offices and other workplaces. The present Government has carried this anti-tobacco drive on by sharply increasing the tax on it in the last Budget and signalling more rises ahead with the aim of making the country smoke-free by 2025. There may be a limit to which the price of tobacco may be driven up without producing counterproductive smuggling and home production, but New Zealand has not reached it yet.

Tobacco companies say that their brands only help them secure their share of the market and do not induce anyone to start smoking. This is specious. Smoking is a highly ritualistic activity, one heavily dependent on an image of sophistication, however spurious, it seeks to confer. Part of that is reinforced by the packaging in which cigarettes are sold and although they can no longer be advertised, a little of that aura lingers from advertisements in overseas publications.

If the tobacco companies fail to persuade the Government to retreat from plain packaging, they have spoken of trying to enforce their rights through trade treaties. It is possible they may win there but the victory would be a pyrrhic one. Any penalty they might be able extort by this means would be more than outweighed by the contempt they would earn from most New Zealanders.


The Press